Review: Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. try hard but ‘Let’s Be Cops’ is a bust

This was just a bad idea.

Don't get me wrong… Jake Johnson, Rob Riggle, Keegan Michael Key, and Damon Wayans Jr. are all genuinely funny people, and when you put that many funny people together, there are going to be funny moments. I certainly laughed a few times during “Let's Be Cops,” and as far as actual film craft goes, it's perfectly serviceable.

But if anything counts in comedy, it's timing, and right now is not the time to make a movie about how easy it is to abuse the privileges that come with wearing a police uniform. I'm not just talking about this week's horrifying events in Ferguson, Missouri, either, although I'm sure everyone at Fox is mortified. This is the second time in recent memory that they've released a comedy at the exact wrong moment, with “The Watch” rolling into theaters just as the Treyvon Martin conversation was at its most heated.

This time, though, the problem runs deeper. At Comic-Con, they mentioned that Luke Greenfield actually did this with a friend of his, and that's where the idea for the film came from. I have to assume that they didn't take it anywhere near as far as the characters do in this film, because he would have ended up shot to death if that was the case, but just admitting that you ever thought it would be a good idea to leave your house pretending to be a police officer is basically confessing that you are a sociopath. It is an insane thing to do.

In the film, they are careful to lay the groundwork that excuses Ryan (Johnson) and Justin (Wayans) of any sort of malice or forethought. Justin's a video game designer, and he's working on a game about being a street cop, so he has a pair of uniforms that he puts on a pair of mannequins. Those happen to be in the apartment when Ryan reminds him that there's a costume party that night. It's labored, all in service of that first image of the two of them suited up, and the movie does make the point that when you put someone in that uniform and you get all the details right, it is transformative. Johnson and Wayans could easily play cops in another movie. They've both got the right build, and they wear the uniforms well. And the first evening they're out, when they accidentally discover that people think they are the real deal, is pretty funny and fairly innocent. It's the 13-year-old idea of what you'd do with that power.

Where the film goes from there is way more problematic, and there's no real way to get it right. The longer they do what they do, and the more elaborate the lie, the less identifiable these guys are. Ideally, this should have been handled like a “Superbad,” a story about one long night. I could buy it if there's not a moment where they characters have a chance to stop what they're doing, consider their actions, and then suit up again to go back out. They try to earn it by writing Ryan as a guy who thought he would play pro ball, only to get injured, and he's been playing dead ever since. As he pretends to be a cop, he starts to realize that he's good at the job. The more he learns about it, the more he clicks with it. It's ultimately played as a redemptive arc for the character, and I didn't buy a word of it. Likewise, I enjoyed Rob Riggle here because they have him playing it straight. I'm so used to seeing Riggle turn into a lunatic that when it becomes clear that his character is just a good and decent cop who is always trying to do the right thing, it's almost a twist. And while I liked watching him do it, I don't buy his relationship with Ryan and Justin. It just doesn't track the way they write it.

When you're making comedy films, you need to take the cultural temperature as you're working. We're in an era right now where there are some serious questions about the way the public relates to law enforcement, and that's not just this week. That's the last few years, a conversation that's getting louder and louder because it is impossible to pretend it's not a real problem. We are over-arming law enforcement. We are creating a military state in which certain citizens are treated a different way for the most dispiriting of reasons. And we have such a troubled relationship with firearms and who is allowed to have them and how, and just seeing images of white people carrying rifles in Wal-Mart and unarmed black people being held at gunpoint for no reason in Ferguson juxtaposed should have all of us asking ourselves how things got this broken, and how we begin to fix them. It's real, real, real hard to laugh at parts of this movie right now.

Key shows up as a low-level henchman who Ryan and Justin use to try to get close to the big bad guy in the film, and there's a whole big sub-plot about what happens when they end up clashing with genuinely dangerous Eastern European mobsters and crooked cops, and it's sort of brutal to sit through any time it's trying to be serious. Nathasha Leggero shows up playing crazy and drugged and horny in a way that only she could combine those things, and again… like Key… she scores laughs because she's so genuinely funny, even if the film doesn't do anything interesting with them.

Look, someone's going to cast Jake Johnson in the right film and it's going to be gigantic. I think it's inevitable. He's almost able to make this all seem palatable, and I don't fault any of the cast considering what they were asked to do. But the script by Luke Greenfield and Nicholas Thomas makes too many easy choices, and it simply doesn't work in terms of maintaing credible audience sympathy.

“Let's Be Cops” is in theaters now.